Networks of organized criminals reportedly run most of the trafficking rings, using intimidation, corruption, and tricks to transport their loot.
Some smugglers even use wedding cars and funeral hearses as cover. In one case, a bear was placed in an ambulance dressed as a patient.
Each year nearly 3,300 tons (3,000 metric tons) of illegal live wildlife and animal products are shipped in and out of Vietnam. Only about 3 percent are intercepted, according to a report by Nguyen Van Song at Hanoi Agricultural University.
Commonly traded creatures include monitor lizards, cobras, pythons, macaques, tigers, and bears. Some wind up as pets, or their parts are used for souvenirs or folk medicines.
About three-quarters of the animals are sold as food, as wildlife meat is an expensive delicacy in many Asian countries.
Favorites include wild pig, porcupine, snake, and soft-shelled turtle. Snake blood and bear bile are also commonly added to wine.
"Considering the number of wildlife-meat restaurants in Vietnam, it is clear there is a serious conservation problem," said Tran Quang Phuong of the Small Carnivore Conservation Program (SCP) at Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park.
Recent surveys, Phuong says, have shown that small carnivores represent one of the largest parts of the wildlife trade in Vietnam.
For example, about a ton of meat from the catlike predator the civet is sold in the country each month.
Primates are also heavily targeted, says WWF's Long, and the demand is taking its toll. (Related news: "Extinction Risk for 1 in 3 Primates, Study Says" [October 2002].)
The white-headed leaf monkey population is down to around 60 individuals on Vietnam's Cat Ba Island.
And fewer than 40 eastern black crested gibbons remain in one reserve in northwest Vietnam, the only place besides China's Hainan Island where the creatures are known to exist.
According to WWF, nearly half of all Hanoi residents surveyed said they had used wildlife products.
But Vietnam is not the only consumer of illegal wildlife.
(Related news: "Ape Meat Sold in U.S., European Black Markets" [July 2006].)
The country also serves as a collection and distribution point for trade among neighboring Asian nations.
Animals and their products are illegally brought in from Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Africa, says Sulma Warne of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network based in Cambridge, England.
The goods are primarily sold to wealthy people in Vietnam, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.
In December ten Southeast Asian countries formed a regional law enforcement network targeting criminals involved in the wildlife trade.
Dubbed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, the group is forming regional task forces made up of police, customs, and environmental authorities to clamp down on the problem.
"These guys are going to start scaring some major wildlife traffickers out of business," said Steve Galster of the international conservation group WildAid, who is based in Thailand.
Such criminals, he said, "have been running roughshod over environmental agencies in Southeast Asia for too long."
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